Too Much of a Sacrifice?

Pitchers such has John Patterson, above, have accounted for 33 of the Washington Nationals' 70 sacrifice bunts this season. (John McDonnell - The Washington Post)
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 28, 2005

The sacrifice bunt is evil, say the sabermetricians with their numbers and charts and spreadsheets. The cost of the out given up is greater than the value of the base gained, and they can prove it mathematically. Offer to elaborate about this to Washington Nationals Manager Frank Robinson, to show him the charts and spreadsheets, and a big hand emerges from below his desk and jabs -- palm out, fingers spread -- at the air in front of your face: Stop. Put your charts away, son.

"I don't live by the numbers," Robinson said firmly, "and I don't manage by the numbers. I put on the bunt when the situation calls for a bunt."

Home runs are cooler, and the triple is still the most exciting play in baseball, but inch-for-inch, no offensive play inspires as much passion as the lowly sacrifice bunt.

Its advocates, though dwindling in number, still get a thrill out of a perfectly executed one, and they still cringe at a botched one, which causes them, inevitably, to decry the state of modern baseball fundamentals. Critics of the sacrifice bunt, on the other hand, contend it is a losing play that, mathematically, reduces a team's scoring potential in most situations.

If the sacrifice bunt is indeed evil, then Robinson is the devil himself. Through Friday's games, the Nationals led the majors with 70 sacrifice bunts. By contrast, the Texas Rangers were last in the majors with eight. The mean for baseball's 30 teams was 42.

The vast gap between first and last can be explained in part by the inherent difference between the American and National leagues, as well as the relative strengths of the Rangers' and Nationals' offenses, which rank third and 30th in baseball, respectively, in runs scored.

"In our park, it's literally true that no lead is ever safe," said Rangers Manager Buck Showalter, during an interview in his office at Ameriquest Field. "So it doesn't make sense to give away an out with a sacrifice bunt, with this lineup in this park. That's not to say I'm anti-bunt. It's just a matter of our unique circumstances."

At the same time, the strategy of the sacrifice bunt sits at the crux of the power struggle within baseball between the younger, "Moneyball" crowd, and the sport's old guard soldiers, such as Robinson.

"People's adoration for the play is antiquated and needs to be updated for the modern game," said James Click, a writer for Click acknowledged that his type of analytical thinking "is not something that's received well among the old-school crowd in baseball, which is unfortunate."

Last year, Click authored a three-part article that claimed to prove, mathematically, that the sacrifice bunt was, in most cases, a losing proposition. Click's conclusion was that it is an "archaic, outdated strategy."

Using data from the 2003 season, Click found that a team with a runner on first base and no outs subsequently averaged 0.919 of a run per inning. But with a runner on second and one out -- which is to say, following a hypothetical sacrifice bunt -- a team averaged 0.706 of a run per inning. That means a bunt in that situation actually "costs" a team 0.213 of a run each time it is deployed.

Similarly, with a runner on second and nobody out -- another potential bunt situation -- teams averaged 1.177 runs per inning, while a situation with a runner on third and one out yielded only 1.032 runs.

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